Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Great Value of Low Standards


I set myself a goal to write something good just now. That's a bad idea. Telling myself to write good stuff puts bad pressure on. So instead, I'm setting a simpler goal: write 750 words be they good or bad.

Sounds like wimping out. Why not hold myself to high standards? I do hold myself to a high standard, but a goal of writing the Great American Novel doesn't help me write. Instead, I need to get pen and paper or start the word processor, and then just begin writing. That lower bar, to just write something, gets me writing. The higher standard doesn't help.

So it is with the standards movement in education, which is not really a movement in education so much as a movement on or against education. The people pushing the new standards are politicians or corporate folks who feel the need to take control of the situation, to fix education.These people have moved on education the way a general moves on an enemy encampment.

The standards movement is all about setting the bar high. We will have kids writing at a higher level, churning out research papers, reading nonfiction, and doing great on tests! Come hell or high water, that's what we're going to do to them! Oops, I mean, that's what we're going to do for them.

Under that framework, my idea to just write something (anything) is watered down, trivial, and likely to lead to middling work. Standards folks can't have that. They want kids to be striving for the top, working to be the best, rising to difficult challenges. Without that high bar, kids won't achieve.

It's a pretty fucked up view of how things work.

Here's a more realistic view: I started writing this essay seven minutes ago after shelving the idea that I had to write something good. Because I put greatness aside, substituting the goal of simply writing 750 words, I started typing where before I was frozen. The first idea in my brain was this standards stuff, so that's what I typed. Without the pressure to be great I felt free to dive in and see where the idea would take me.

Look at the power of that freedom: I'm 500 words into a draft of an essay about the power low standards. I've presented a thesis and argued it. I'm using my experience of writing to make a point about standards and the ways in which people learn best.

Pretty cool, eh?

I have nothing against holding kids to high standards fit to who they are. I do just that in my classroom. I do the same thing when I coach my daughter's soccer team. I expect Nicole to send her goal kicks well past midfield. I expect my daughter to get them out of the goalie box. The best standards are individual to the student and applied by a knowing teacher.

I don't need a standardized test to make these decisions. I know my students.

The students I serve at the moment struggle mightily with scholastic confidence. That's a polite way to say that they suck at school and have all, in one way or another failed out. That doesn't give any of us a pass. It means that it is a mistake to demand they write the Great American Novel or else! It means that there is great power in simply asking them to write on.